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The Yeshiva: Chaim Grade Parts 4 & 5

Saturday, September 4, 2021, 5:00-7:00 pm Pacific

The book, The Yeshiva, is out of print. A digital copy is available:

A month ago, we met to discuss the first volume of The Yeshiva, a two-volume novel by one of Yiddish literature's greatest writers, Chaim Grade (1910-1982). The book, which appeared in Yiddish in 1967 and in English translation in 1976, is Grade's crowning achievement, culminating his turn from poetry to prose following the Second World War and his emigration to America. From his apartment in the Bronx, New York, where he lived with his said-to-be overprotective wife, Ina Hecker-Grade, Chaim Grade produced a series of full-length works combining fiction and memoir, starting with My Mother's Sabbath Days, giving witness to the interwar world of Orthodox Jewry in and around Vilna as it was before its obliteration.

Grade's work provides invaluable insights into complex characters struggling to live in Jewish society while in relation to its higher values. The Yeshiva represents the special world of Musar, in which we encounter the tormented hero, Tsemakh Atlas, who no longer believes in God but clings to Musar's ethical teachings to the extent that his ungovernable passions allow him. Tsemakh is an extreme case of homo religiosus at the precipice of modern secular transformation.

I will suggest two frameworks for the concluding discussion of The Yeshiva, one in Chaim Grade's own words and terms, and the other in a contemporary "queer-feminist" reading of the the sex-gender system in traditional Orthodox Judaism. Each of these frameworks focuses on the transformation of Jewish life in relation to Western European culture and the promises of modernity.

My War with Hersch Rasseyner: Prelude to the Yeshiva

Chaim Grade published a piece of short fiction in English, "My War with Hersh Rasseyner," in the November 1953 issue of the magazine, Commentary. Written in the first person, the piece appears to be a straight memoir of the author's chance encounters and reconstructed dialogues with a one-time fellow Novaredok Musarnik, Hersh Rasseyner. The first encounter occurs in Bialystock in 1937, after Grade has left the life of the yeshiva to become a secular writer. The next occurs in Soviet-occupied Vilna, in 1939, and the last in Paris, after the war, in 1948.

Rasseyner survived the concentration camp as Grade has survived his wanderings behind Soviet lines. Both are marked as mourners and witnesses to the destruction of the war and its price for the Jews. Through these trials, Rasseyner has not only kept his faith. He has strengthened his belief in God's wisdom. The story is perhaps best understood as the continual struggle inside Grade between the two poles of his Jewish conscience--the Musarnik, the faithful believer and brutal scrutinizer of motives and passions, and the secular writer who has opted to believe in individual creativity and the worldliness of Western culture's humanistic values. Grade refers to himself as Chaim Vilner, the name he later used in his 1968 novel in Yiddish, Tsemakh Atlas, published in English as The Yeshiva.

My War with Hersh Rasseyner A Story - Chaim Grade, Commentary Magazine
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The Yeshiva: A Queer Feminist Reading of Jews and Gender

Not least, we can read The Yeshiva to think about problems of gender in Orthodox Jewish culture. The 2011 article below by Naomi Seidman offers an innovative way to view the prohibitions and profound estrangement in relations between Jewish men and women in the novel. As with the Bratslaver Hasidim, we find a passionate, exclusionary male world of daily life, scholarship and spiritual learning. Using a broad notion of 'queerness' to mean reading against the modern Western cultural grain, Seidman provides a way of acknowledging such intense male homosociality not as masked homosexual desire, but as part of the gender system linking families into communities undergoing strain from those very same Western modernizing forces. Seidman can help us to see past our own tendencies to use an individualizing Western psychology to understand Tsemakh Atlas's dysfunctional relationships with women. It also opens a new window on the sex-gender system in 'traditional' Ashkenazic community life.

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